Platform: A Partnership Based on Choice for Our Schools; Danny Kennedy, Ulster Unionist Party MLA and Chairman of the Assembly Education Committee

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Byline: Danny Kennedy

ONE of the few clearly favourable things known to most outsiders about Northern Ireland is how good our schools are.

A recent article in The Economist extolled the value of our schools to a worldwide audience.

Since it takes decades, or even generations, to build a network of truly excellent schools, it is unthinkable that we ourselves could contemplate doing anything to damage them. This is why the current Review of Post Primary Education is so important.

Although it is too early to say what will emerge from the review, there are plenty of voices in Northern Ireland who wish to destroy our best schools, by introducing a uniform system of comprehensives.

We can understand their motives. They oppose labelling children as failures, they wish to raise standards for low-achieving children. Some also want to advance the process of social integration. These are admirable aims, but the chosen solution of comprehensive schools is simply not the answer.

The great comprehensive experiment in Great Britain is now seen to have failed. Examination results in England and Wales began falling behind those in Northern Ireland at exactly the time, 30 years ago, when comprehensives began to replace grammar schools and secondary moderns.

Last week, Tony Blair sounded the death knell for comprehensives by announcing a move away from comprehensives to a more diversified system with an element of selection.

The Ulster Unionist policy on secondary education, launched on Tuesday in our document Excellence, Diversity and Choice, accepts some of the criticisms of our current system in Northern Ireland, but is determined not to throw the baby out with the bath-water.

We advocate retaining our best schools in their current form. This, of course, includes the grammar schools, but also the best secondary schools. At the same time, we strongly wish to improve other schools, bringing them up to a level where there is genuine parity of esteem between different types of school.

We also believe that schools should offer diversity. Some families recognise that their children benefit most from a technical or vocational education, others from a more academic approach. Choice is important, not all children are alike.

While we propose to maintain the academically-oriented grammar schools for those who prefer them, we also propose that there should be technical and vocational schools. Where possible, these should offer specialisms which might include such things as media and arts, sports and music.

Some of our schools focus very successfully on getting their pupils into higher education. We need now to focus more strongly on the role of schools in equipping young people to obtain good jobs; good grounding in literacy and numeracy are essential skills well regarded by all employers, and which instill young people with pride and confidence. …